DANVERS — There’s a target on Johnny Thomas’ back this fall; a bull’s-eye as big as the blue or white number one that’s stretched across his shoulder pads.
Every defense that lines up across from St. John’s Prep wants to tackle Thomas. They want to hit him, jump on him and then hit him again, trying everything they can to wear him down.
It’s the same bull’s-eye Jordan Todman of Dartmouth High wore a few years ago, and Everett’s Diamond Ferri before that. Targets are a fact of life when you’re the best running back in the Bay State.
Players aren’t defined by labels. They’re defined by what they do between the stripes.
Saturday afternoon at Cronin Field, Thomas carried 31 times for 263 yards and three touchdowns and St. John’s scored 22 points in the fourth quarter of a 36-22 win over Brockton.
When the Eagles (1-1) needed points, they turned to Thomas. The Maryland recruit carried on nine of 10 plays on the Prep’s first two fourth quarter scoring drives. He capped both by bowling into the end zone as the Eagles turned a 16-14 hole into a 30-16 lead in a matter of minutes.
Imagine how it feels to get tackled 28 times; to have a tough, hard hitting team like Brockton chase you around all afternoon intent on making you break.
“I feel good,” Thomas said after the Eagles wrapped up what he called a “do-or-die” game in terms of the playoffs. “I might be a little beat up, but that’s normal. It’s nothing.”
You can’t blame defenses for trying to hit Thomas. That’s football and has been since the beginning of time. Every linebacker thinks he’s the one that can make the star running back ordinary. From the Patriots getting physical with the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI right on down to the high school field, it’s how the game is played.
It takes a special kind of personality to deal with all that attention from defenses, fans and the media. Extra whacks or choice words at the bottom of the pile don’t bother Thomas. They come with the territory.
“I ignore it. I don’t have time for the drama,” he said. “I run the ball hard and I get back to the huddle.”
It was the second career 200-yard rushing game against Brockton for Thomas as the Eagles beat the Boxers in three straight meetings for the first time. He has 550 yards and eight total TDs (a season’s worth for many players) in those three games.
Running into the teeth of a defense like Brockton’s is not always fun ... but if it were easy, everyone would do it.
“You have a horse, you ride him,” Eagles coach Jim O’Leary said of Thomas. “Did he have 30 carries? That wasn’t the plan, but the line did a nice job and it was a nice cool day.”
St. John’s Prep’s veteran offensive line opened some big holes. Game captain Kent Blaeser, Sean Hoey, Sean Lovett, Dom Hooven and Jacob Palmer paved the way inside and outside.
“If we do our job and Johnny does his job, we’ll end up in the end zone,” said Blaeser.
Does Thomas have a favorite lineman, a certain jersey he looks for when the defense is closing in on him?
“Where the opening is, that’s where you’ll see me,” he answered. “I know I can rely on all my guys out there.”
Boxford’s Bleaser, one of the few Eagles playing both ways, helped turn the game around by leaping on a fumble with Brockton leading 16-14 in the fourth quarter.
“I saw the ball on the ground and I wasn’t sure what was happening. I thought ‘Is this real? Did I get hit in the head and I’m imagining this?’ Then I had the ball,” he said.
Starting at the Brockton 25, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-4. The entire stadium knew the ball was going to Thomas, yet he broke a tackle and bounced outside for an 18-yard gain. On the next play he crashed into the end zone and St. John’s had the lead for good.
Thomas stands 5-11 and weighs 210 pounds. He runs a 4.47 40-yard dash and moves like a man 30 pounds lighter. He is the rare combination of speed and power that can run inside and outside. He breaks tackles as well as he evades them; once a Brockton coach screamed counter before the Prep ran one, and Thomas still hit a seam for a 41-yard gain with three or four shrugged off would-be tacklers in his wake.
“He’s a train. If we make a hole, he’ll find it and he will run — and then keep running,” said Blaeser.
Prep quarterback Michael Geaslen did a good job moving the sticks with passes to Jake Burt and came through with a pair of two-point conversion passes the Eagles needed. That’s important, because defenses can’t put 8-9 defenders in the box to deal with Thomas as cavalierly as they might otherwise.
And the Prep defense was better than it was in a Week 1 loss, with great pressure off the edge from sophomore Jack Lambert and three timely turnovers.
The Eagles still know they need Thomas, the rare and elite player everyone who loves football should watch at least once.
Maybe he’ll carry 30 times again this season, and maybe he won’t have to. By hitting the weights all summer, frequently taking ice baths to soothe his muscles, and doing yoga with the rest of his Eagles teammates to stay limber, he’ll be ready for whatever his team needs.
“I knew I’d be running a lot, be taking a lot of blows,” Thomas said. “Now, it’s time to relax and watch some college football. That’s what feels good after a win.”
When you’re as nimble and powerful as Johnny Thomas, you don’t dwell on another 250-yard performance. You simply take care of your body and try to stay grounded, because in six days it’ll be time to try to do it all over again.
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.